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Signal, Noise, and Bandwidth June 10, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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In case anyone hasn’t noticed, it seems that everyone has to deal with a lot more information these days.  This whole internet idea, if it takes off, could really make it difficult to stay on top of things.  Why, then, are people shifting to technologies that make it harder to keep up?

I recently received an email from a major corporation.  In the email was a link to a video, which contained An Important Message For Our Customers.  Since I like this company, I decided to watch.  The video was a four minute clip of the company president making a speech.  It took four minutes to watch a man read a message to me that I could have skimmed in fifteen seconds.  What was the point of the stretching the content to be sixteen times longer?

I can see the marketing meeting: “Let’s just email this out over his signature.”  “That’s too impersonal; we want to engage our customers.” “We could dress it up with HTML and make the email look really sharp.” “Still not good enough.” “Maybe a podcast?” “I don’t know… how about a video?” “Great!  That will really connect with people!”

I appreciate this.  Really. But I don’t have time to watch it all.  Imagine if every email you received were converted to a video clip of someone reading the message to you.  You’d never get anything done!  Imagine the cacophony in the cube farms!

I see blogs going the same way.  People who used to write a blog are now reading the blog and sending it out as a podcast.  Some people are going the next step and converting it to a video.  This may be cool, but it makes it harder for people to absorb the information.  The content is the same, but the wrapper is much, much bigger.  In the parlance of information theory, the signal stays the same, but the noise has gone way up, and you’re burning a lot more bandwidth to send the same message.

There is a delightful minimalism to Twitter.  You can skim hundreds of tweets in just a minute or two, stopping to absorb ones that catch your interest.  If you had your tweets read to you, you’d never get through a fraction of them.

If you are trying to convey an idea to someone, you must do it in a way that makes it easy as possible for that person to absorb the idea.  There is a place for audio and video.  If you are conveying instructions, a video may be the perfect vehicle, far more efficient that trying to explain the same idea in prose.  If your message involves sounds, audio is the way to go.  But the vast, vast amount of what we send back and forth is perfectly captured as text. Wonderful, simple, written words, perfected several thousand years ago.  Our brains absorb written words at an amazing rate, far faster than if we were listening to them or watching someone recite them.

As in all things, respect your audience.  Send them information in the form that works best for them.  Use audio and video where it truly adds value, and rely on the written word for everything else.  Your audience will thank you, hopefully in writing.

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Comments»

1. ... - June 10, 2009

You are totally right, but if we’d like that the information learned stay longer in person’s mind then it is preferable to be in image format (image or video).

2. Chuck Musciano - June 10, 2009

Hmmm. I’d contend that much of the information we send is transitory in nature and is not intended for long-term retention. And while we retain some images longer, I have a tremendous amount of information in my head that I learned long ago as simple text. Much of memory is about repetition and use, regardless of how the information was acquired.

Honestly, if you really want to retain something, sing it. I have way too many neurons tied up with TV theme songs and commercial jingles!


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